King Leer

A mea culpa from a recovering ogler

“I am a transparent eyeball. I see everything. I am nothing”
— Emerson,
Nature

It’s true. A man who gapes so shamelessly in this way doesn't really exist, when you come down to it. He is nothing — just an eye attached to a void disguised as lust. At best, he is a vessel of libido and animosity, of thwarted desire and its poisons. He is little more than a face, eyes wide, mouth half-open, radiating something that can’t quite be identified but can still somehow be felt. Nobody knows how; I have my suspicions, though.

They teach you in the Green Berets not to look at the passing NVA soldiers you are hiding from; no matter how effective your face paint and camouflage, they will pick up your gaze and kill you. Moreihi Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, could feel archers aiming at him, and make them miss just by reversing polarities, giving them the willies. No man, looking hard at something he can’t have, can ever be totally free from resentment—a silent, smouldering anger at foxy girls, their boyfriends, and most of all themselves. This energy is all too palpable. It isn’t the energy of lust, or excitement, or even obsession. It’s something else, something worse.

At least in my case. I was for many years a stone creep, a quasar spewing dark energy at every attractive woman in sight. I did it again and again. On a fourth-floor share in the Flatiron district, I beamed my x-rays across Fifth Avenue at a blonde vacuuming in gym shorts; the next day she started wearing sweatpants. There was a lanky brunette on a Miami bicycle in 2011, with tiny ankles and a Himalayan bustline; she cycled away at double speed. Boozy, blowsy co-eds, cantilevered sales associates in three-quarter profile; moms in yoga pants and waitresses at neighboring tables; they all felt me, and shivered. I was the cause of a thousand arms crossed unconsciously over chests, of changed seats on buses, of bad mojo and the heebie-jeebies. Despite a deep desire to be merely invisible, a wraith, I projected something so pervy and malevolent that it could be detected on a metaphysical level.

“Stop staring!” my first wife used to say to me. “It’s so gross.” I’m sorry! I said, over and over. But I kept doing it anyway. It was an ungovernable feral impulse. It never felt good; it felt bad. But I couldn’t stop. Not that I ever really tried. I was an asocial wolf boy in my childhood, a bellicose brute in my teen years, an inept seducer in my twenties, and I spent much of my thirties in a harrowing starter marriage, inert and unmanned. In every one of these periods I tottered resentfully toward the most beautiful thing I could imagine, but like Moses, the land of milk and honey was forever to be seen only from afar.

Now, in enervated middle age, I give into the impulse whenever it strikes, which is less often. I no longer go out of my way to indulge it. In the past I would sometimes cross the street and reverse direction in the hope of catching a sidelong glimpse of some unlucky pedestrian. I have worn Roy Orbison-style sunglasses, the better to hide my reptile stare. Sometimes I was noticed and given a withering scowl. Then I would scamper away, like a roach when you turn the light on.

I feel guilty about it, looking back, but only because I felt guilty about everything. But really. We’ve all used the phrase “looking at someone the wrong way” to describe an imaginary crime, the kind of that sets off volatile and paranoid personalities. Had I really been that evil? Or were the women just being weird? I still wonder sometimes. “A cat may look at a king,” as the saying goes. What kind of secret membrane separates “just looking” and “eye-fucking,” to use an especially ungenerous expression? I still don’t completely know. Who did it hurt? It’s not like I was really there.

Maybe it’s a matter of duration. Even those unlucky women I fixed in the Eye of Sauron might have forgiven me had their discomfiture lasted only a couple of awkward seconds. So many men have gawked at them over the years, often without even knowing it, that many women come to take it for granted — the inevitable “elevator eyes” of guidance counselors, auto mechanics, convenience store clerks, adjunct professors, delivery boys, office managers, Shriners, fast-food cashiers, peccant husbands, and other non-starters in the mating game. I admire women for being such good sports. And I get it: a quick once-over is rude, but common, a micro-aggression. Open ogling, somehow, crosses an invisible line into depravity.

The key then, is not to leer; it’s to do it more secretly, to blend into shadows, to disappear. Because leering isn’t something you do. It’s something you are. There is no way to turn it off. Like halitosis, which proceeds from your very life breath and marks your very essence as repulsive, there is no real cure for it short of extinction. Is there? What is the cure for my malady? A bullet? A blindfold? A show trial at the International Hot Women’s Congress? What?

Only removal, to farther and farther vantage points, can serve to contain the evil. But how far is far enough? Would a distant window, atop some all-glass high-rise, do the job? What if I used a telescope? A radio telescope? The Very Large Array? I can’t seem to get distant enough. There is something wrong with me. You can see it in my eyes.